In Burundi, the Drum Is a Revered Symbol of Unity. But Only Men Can Play.

In Burundi, the Drum Is a Revered Symbol of Unity. But Only Men Can Play.

GITEGA, Burundi — An ensemble of about 30 men, balancing heavy instruments on their heads, walked in a solemn procession to a red-soil field, where the silence would soon be replaced by a sound essential to the cultural identity of Burundi: drumming.

Led by an older man carrying a spear and a shield, the group formed a crescent, set down their drums and began to play for the gathered tourists, the thunderous music reverberating down a hill, several miles away from Burundi’s capital, Gitega.

“Drumming in Burundi is about history,” said Oscar Nshimirimana, the leader of the performers, the Royal Drummers of Burundi. “It is about power. It is about freedom.”

But in Burundi, where the instrument has long figured prominently in politics, culture and economics, not everyone is free to play the drums.

In 2017, Burundi’s president at the time, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a decree that banned women from performing the traditional synchronized drumming which is often accompanied by ritual dances, songs or poetry. Women are only allowed to perform the ritual dances.

Also part of the new rules: Drumming was mostly limited to official ceremonies. Private event organizers who wished to have traditional drummers perform were required to obtain authorization from a government minister and pay a fee for the privilege. Anyone accused of breaking the rules faced up to $500 in fines, in one of the world’s poorest countries, where the G.D.P. per capita was $239 in 2020, according to the World Bank.

Five years later, the measures are still in place.

Louis Kamwenubusa, the permanent secretary for the East African Community Affairs, Youth, Sports and Culture ministry in Burundi, recently defended the laws as “preserving and protecting” Burundi’s culture.

Mr. Kamwenubusa argued that women had not been royal drum performers for centuries, so to allow them to perform would go against long-respected practices. The ban on female drummers was in line with that, he said.

The restrictions have been denounced as one more indication of how Mr. Nkurunziza, who died in June 2020, and his chosen successor, President Evariste Ndayishimiye, have aimed to keep a tight rein on Burundian society. Human rights groups have accused both administrations of cracking down on civil liberties and the press, torturing and killing opponents, and using the national intelligence along with pro-government youth militia to surveil the actions of citizens.

For women like Emilie Nkengurutse, who had once belonged to a women’s drumming group in Bujumbura, the country’s largest city, the restrictions have meant the loss of both an important source of income and a lifelong passion.

“I miss beating a drum,” said Ms. Nkengurutse, who now earns her living only from the vegetables she sells. “I often go and watch performances and sometimes I feel I want to take the drumsticks and play, but I cannot.”

In Burundi, a landlocked nation of 11 million, the importance of the drum is hard to overstate.

In the local Kirundi language, “ingoma” means both “drum” and “kingdom” — signifying its centrality to prestige and power.

In Burundi, the traditional drums — long, hollowed-out wooden trunks wrapped in cow skin and secured with wooden pegs — are typically made from Cordia africana, a flowering tree sometimes known as Sudan teak. In the local language, the tree is known as the “umuvugangoma,” which translates as “the tree that makes the drum speak.”

Historically, the drum was used as a tool to communicate over a distance. It has also been deployed at the enthronement of royals, as well as their funerals. And it has been used as the equivalent of a battle flag, whose capture by an opposing force was synonymous with defeat.

Burundian drummers became prominent outside the country’s borders after independence, featured by stars like Joni Mitchell, who used a recording of the drums in her 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns.”

Today, drumming still fosters community. The Burundian drum is usually present at a wide variety of events, including weddings, baptisms, fairs and graduation ceremonies.

In 2014, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization added the ritual performance of the royal drummers to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, calling it a “means of bringing people of diverse generations and origins together, thereby encouraging unity and social cohesion.”

But if the drum has been praised as a unifying tool, the government’s restrictions have also made it a divisive one, between men and women, and between those who can afford to pay the government fees and those who cannot.

“It’s a shock to me,” said Annie Irankunda, a Burundian-American drummer whose drumming group was cast in the superhero film “Black Panther.” When the movie was shown by the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Bujumbura, the largest city in Burundi, she said she couldn’t beat the drums along with the local, all-male troupe that was invited to perform.

Of all the ceremonial functions of the drum, one of the most important was the role it played to mark the annual cultivation season, when the king would exhort his people to pick up their hoes and start plowing. On the day of the ceremony, two large drums — known as Ruciteme, meaning “the one for whom we clear the forest” and Murimirwa, meaning “the one for whom we cultivate” — would be thumped in a sacred rite.

Those two drums, about 119 years old, still remain at the Gishora Drum Sanctuary outside Gitega where Mr. Nshimirimana and his troupe perform.

Now a major tourist attraction because of the drum performances, the site was established by King Mwezi Gisabo, Burundi’s last independent ruler before German colonial rule began in the late 19th century.

Burundi became a Belgian colony after World War I, with the drum continuing to play a critical role after independence in 1962. A drum, along with a sorghum plant, was featured in the country’s first post-independence flag.

But in the Burundi of 2022, Mr. Nshimirimana said he was concerned about training the next generation of drummers and passing on an appreciation for the vital place of the instrument in Burundian culture and history.

Among the near-term challenges are not only the government restrictions, but also the travel limitations related to the pandemic, which severely cut into tourism to the sanctuary. In an effort to boost tourism, Burundi has recently started to allowed all foreign nationals to obtain visas on arrival.

“We’ve been here for centuries,” Mr. Nshimirimana said one afternoon, donning robes in the red, green and white of Burundi’s flag. “And I hope we will be here for many more.”

Hussein Butoyi contributed reporting.

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